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Production house mm2 Asia moves beyond movies

Other than making films, listed production firm mm2 Asia is organising singing contests, exploring virtual technology and signing on Web personalities

In December 2014, Singapore-headquartered mm2 Asia made history by becoming the first - and thus far only - local movie production company to be listed on Catalist, the secondary board of the Singapore Exchange.

There might have been hopes when that happened that it could be a major Asian film studio a la Hollywood's Universal or Disney.

Those hopes were probably raised when one of its movies the following year, Ah Boys To Men 3: Frogmen, earned $7.6 million at the Singapore box office.

Also successful was director Jack Neo's period two-parter Long Long Time Ago and Long Long Time Ago 2, which made $4.16 million and $3.03 million.

But instead of churning out one box-office hit after another, the company has held a singing contest, explored the use of virtual technology in live-streaming events and also signed on Internet personalities.

  • Dollars and sense of mm2 Asia’s moves

  • Last year

    FEBRUARY

    Ah Boys To Men 3: Frogmen is released in Singapore and earns $7.6 million at the local box office. It is behind only Ah Boys To Men 2 (2013) on the all-time chart. In Malaysia, it was the highest- grossing Ah Boys instalment with takings of RM4.2 million (S$1.34 million). Verdict: Success

    APRIL

    Mm2 Asia acquires a 51 per cent stake in Vividthree, an award- winning player in Singapore's 3D animation field.

    Verdict: Could be a good move as it gives the company a technological edge in producing content which excites audiences.

    NOV 3 The winners are announced for the inaugural Movie Makers Short Film Competition, which is co-organised by mm2 Entertainment.

    Verdict: Yet to bear fruit. An early example of mm2 seeking to uncover fresh talent.

    DEC 18

    Enters into an agreement to acquire a 70 per cent stake in Millinillion, a tech start-up that would enable mm2 to offer a media streaming platform for users to watch short films and movie content on devices from mobile phones to smart TVs. This would provide it with another avenue to deliver content and, hence, another possible stream of revenue.

    Verdict: Yet to bear fruit. This is another move for the long term.

    This year

    MARCH

    Signs a memorandum of understanding with local telco StarHub to collaborate on $25 million worth of local productions over three years, renewable for another two years for an additional $25 million.

    Verdict: Success

    APRIL 28

    Mm2 and Institute of Technical Education to cooperate on nine feature films to train students in movie production as they undertake positions such as second camera assistants and junior lighting technicians.

    Verdict: Shrewd move to train future talent behind the camera.

    MAY 12

    Partnership announced with the then Media Development Authority to develop Chinese- language scriptwriting talent for the Singapore film industry in a three-year, $8-million programme. It includes a six-month-long Scriptwriter's Lab to develop feature film scripts.

    Verdict: Success, for the deal spreads the cost of developing talent.

    MAY 13

    Announcement of 20/20 - The Temasek Short Film Project, commissioned by Singapore investment company Temasek and facilitated by mm2. Lasalle College of the Arts film student Leroy Lim has been selected by mm2 Entertainment and given the chance to make his first feature.

    Verdict: Success, if only on paper at the moment. Mm2 wins points for championing new talent, but Lim still has to prove himself.

    MAY 16

    Announcement that mm2 Asia and Clover Films have acquired shared distribution rights for 19 movies in Singapore and Malaysia for financial year 2017, more than double the nine titles distributed in FY2016.

    Verdict: Can tell only when the numbers are in whether the cost of acquiring more titles results in higher revenue and more profits.

    MAY 17

    Announcement of co-production with United States-based BoulderLight Pictures, a contemporary thriller called Good Match, in which a bachelor finds a seemingly perfect match on a social dating app whose behaviour starts to become erratic.

    Verdict: An interesting move. This hints that mm2's ambitions go beyond the region, though heading farther abroad would have to be done at a pace that does not overstretch the company.

    MAY 26

    Story rights for original story My Love, Farewell licensed to China-based production company Shanghai Man Man Er Culture and Broadcast for a 70-million-yuan (S$14.4-million) budgeted, 35- episode television series of the same name.

    Verdict: Good move. Even as it takes up opportunities farther afield, mm2 is making inroads into the potentially lucrative China market.

    JUNE 26

    Names the first winner of Hear Me Sing, which mm2 bills as Singapore's first online singing competition. Jean Goh, 25, gets $5,000 cash, a voice-training course in Taiwan, as well as an acting role in a movie produced by mm2.

    Verdict: Goh's appeal is still untested. Another effort at uncovering talent and also to build support for fresh faces.

    JULY

    Unveils plans to set up a joint- venture entertainment outfit with singer-songwriter Dick Lee, with the loosely biographical Wonder Boy slated as the first release under the pact.

    Verdict: Good move. Lee, a multihyphenate artist, has produced a huge amount of work.

    AUGUST

    Completes acquisition of 51 per cent of event and concert producer Unusual.

    Verdict: Shrewd move as it further diversifies mm2's range of content and adds more income streams.

    OCT 7

    Press conference on mm2 collaborating with digital content producers such as child humorist Dr Jia Jia and actor Ridhwan Azman.

    Verdict: Undecided. This is another example of mm2 expanding its capability to come up with original content, though it remains to be seen if this will pay off.

    OCT 17

    Enters into non-binding agreement to acquire up to a 30 per cent stake in RINGS.TV, an interactive broadcasting technology platform to stream and broadcast live concerts, conferences and other events.

    Verdict: Promising. Virtual reality live streaming explores new technology that is becoming the potential next big thing for audiences.

    OCT 20

    Secures exclusive licensed rights to produce the Singapore/Malaysia edition of popular singing competition The Voice, which is scheduled to air next year.

    Verdict: Iffy. Has mm2 hopped onto the bandwagon a little late, given that the format is into its 11th season in the US and has also had four seasons on the mainland as The Voice Of China?

 

What do all these other things have to do with movies?

The chief executive officer of mm2 Asia, Mr Melvin Ang, 53, lays out his vision: to be a company with regional reach with firm Singapore roots. The focus is clear - to create original content and then distribute that through various channels.

Mm2 was set up in Kuala Lumpur in 2008 to produce and distribute Chinese-language content for Malaysian consumption. It is now headquartered in Singapore and also has a presence in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China.

Its films include period drama 1965 (2015) and director Royston Tan's music drama 3688 (2015), as well as the anthology film 4Love, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, and the upcoming Dick Lee movie Wonder Boy, which is loosely based on the home-grown singer-songwriter's life.

Mm2's content comprises more than just movies.

In May, it signed a deal to acquire a 51 per cent stake in event and concert producer Unusual Group of Companies and has announced an interest in acquiring a stake in RINGS.TV, an interactive broadcasting technology platform.

It has also organised Hear Me Sing, a singing contest which was shown online and on the streaming platform StarHub Go, and bought the franchise rights to produce a Singapore-Malaysia edition of the popular international televised singing contest The Voice.

Mr Michael Kam, 47, senior lecturer in Ngee Ann Polytechnic's Film, Sound & Video department, says that what mm2 is doing is "quite inter-related and concerted".

The two singing competitions can help to uncover new talent for its projects, he says.

Indeed, the winner's package for Hear Me Sing champion Jean Goh includes a role in an mm2-produced movie.

Speaking of securing talent for its content, mm2 has also announced tie-ups with YouTube personalities such as the Singlish-speaking Dr Jia Jia (whose real name is Chua Jin Sen, 10) and actor-director-producer Jonathan Cheok to produce original content.

Cheok, 31, whose official YouTube channel Cheokboardstudios has more than 30 million views, was previously making up to US$800 (S$1,140) a month under his contract with American company Fullscreen.

While he declines to reveal the details of his deal with mm2, he is pitching ideas for several Web series and also has a role in 4Love as a clumsy friend.

Film producer Juan Foo, 42, offers one reason for mm2's diversification of its portfolio: "While film is sexy, it is the most challenging of show businesses. So moving into new media is quite expected of the company, given the pressure from shareholders," he says.

Some of mm2's other moves also seem to take a longer view - they may produce usable content only in the future.

It has organised short-film competitions and script-writing labs and offered on-the-job industry experience to students from institutions such as the Institute of Technical Education.

On the hunt for talent, content

Three Lasalle College of the Arts teams took part in the mm2Entertainment-produced Temasek 20/20 Short Film Project, where mentorship was provided to the students who were creating short films inspired by real-life stories.

Ms Regina Yeo, adjunct senior lecturer in the marketing department of the National University of Singapore Business School, notes that it is "definitely a good move" to invest in and groom new and young talent.

The competitions give aspiring talent a showcase to express themselves and also give contestants an opportunity to build a fanbase.

Mr Foo sounds a note of caution, though: "While mm2 is on the right track, it is too early to see if it bears fruit." This is because talent development can take years and needs focus.

Meanwhile, there has to be success in the short term in its core business of content production for mm2 to build on.

Ms Yeo says: "Mm2 has to be mindful that its success is as good as its last production or show. While there is a tendency to rely on tried-and-tested production formats or themes, mm2 should avoid the 'same-old, same-old' formats, or the audience will be bored."

It is, perhaps, telling that its biggest box-office hit since its listing is the military-themed Ah Boys To Men 3: Frogmen. Not surprisingly, parts four and five are "in the planning stage", says Mr Ang.

By comparison, 1965 and 3688 were lacklustre at the box office, earning $614,000 and $461,000.

The trickier thing to do is to develop a fresh new hit, but at least it is not for want of trying.

The mm2-produced 4Love weaves together four love stories from newer directors Raihan Halim (Banting, 2014), Gilbert Chan (23:59, 2011), Sam Loh (Lang Tong, 2014) and Daniel Yam (co-director of the upcoming Wonder Boy).

Also in the works are Wonder Boy; a comedy called Lucky Boy starring Ah Boys actor Wang Weiliang; and erotic thriller Siew Lup, directed by Loh.

While mm2 has not had a string of box-office hits since its commercial listing, its share price has risen.

The outfit launched its initial public offering with a placement of 37.4 million shares at 25 cents each, raising $5.7 million in net proceeds.

The number of shares issued was subsequently split twice and is now trading at about 43 cents. (If you bought 1,000 shares for $250 in December 2014, you would now have 4,000 shares valued at $1,720.)

Mm2 also announced that its net profit for the half-year ended Sept 30 rose 97 per cent to $8.9 million. Revenue growth for the same period almost tripled to $35 million, from $12.7 million. The increase came from the additional revenue generated by its newly acquired subsidiary, Unusual, as well as its cinema operations business in Malaysia.

Another indicator of success would be critical acclaim for its film titles. While mm2 distributed the feted anthology 7 Letters (2015) and co-produced Neo's contribution to it, Ngee Ann Polytechnic's Mr Kam notes that its slate of offerings is, "for the most part, clearly targeted at the mass audience".

He adds: "I'd like to see the company taking on edgier and creatively riskier projects as well, be they arthouse or independent- minded films. This may pay off in the future through international awards that could enhance its credibility as a film company, which, in turn, may attract other co-production possibilities."

To this, mm2's Mr Ang says only that awards are "good to have".

Accolades do not seem to be a priority for his firm like they were for American company Miramax, which produced Oscar winners such as The English Patient (1996) and Shakespeare In Love (1998).

While it can be quite hard to put into tangible terms the results of mm2's efforts, there definitely is a positive impact.

As Mr Kam puts it: "Mm2 is a dominant player in the local industry, producing 80 to 90 per cent of our local content. To me, its efforts are definitely commendable and will go some way to raising the bar in the local film industry."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2016, with the headline 'Moving beyond movies'. Print Edition | Subscribe